How 'Concussion,' 'Spotlight' & More Films Ask Us To Learn From The Past

Any movie that tackles a specific historical event or period in history will inevitably find a way to comment on or judge the very story it’s presenting. This Oscar season, there are quite a few films hitting theaters that ask audiences to examine recent historical conflicts and pass judgement upon its subjects. Movies like The Big Short, Spotlight, Concussion, and Trumbo all utilize a concept I’m going to call “hindsight cinema.” These films look back on an era or incident, and either judge the people involved for what's known today or use the event as a baseline to teach a lesson for rather recent mistakes. Yet while the filmmakers behind these movies may want audiences to learn from them, the lesson is often too far removed or too complicated for the films to end up being anything other than preachy. But one film this year might actually make the goal of "hindsight cinema" work: Concussion. Still, the Will Smith film could easily fall into the trap of similar movies that came out earlier this season that instead of teaching audiences, simply had them relive past mistakes without connecting the errors to today's world.

One of those such films? Jay Roach's Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo, a Hollywood screenwriter of the studio era who, in 1947, was blacklisted (and then imprisoned) for refusing to testify before the U.S. Congress regarding Communist propaganda in Hollywood. Of all the movies this season that have utilized hindsight cinema, Trumbo reaches the farthest back in history in order to mine for humanity's errors. The film asks its audience to peer back into a time when people were being persecuted for political stances and for Hollywood to dig through its archives even when they're not pretty, but due to its period piece-feel, it doesn't resonate as strongly as it tries to.

Then there's Spotlight, the ensemble film starring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and more. The acclaimed movie details a more recent event, focusing on the Boston Globe investigative reporting team that uncovered the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal in the early 2000s. As the characters unravel the horrific details, the viewer naturally grows more and more disgusted with the conspiracy behind the scandal. Thoughts like, “How could anyone let this happen?” and “Why didn’t anyone listen?” enter audiences' minds.

In a similar journalistic setting, Truth, starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, dives into the downfall of Mary Mapes and Dan Rather during their controversial — and later, discredited — reporting of the Killian documents, which questioned then-President George W. Bush’s National Guard service. The film has a very distinct "hindsight is 20/20" outlook; audiences are supposed to note the gaps in logic and assure themselves that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes. This month's financial dramedy The Big Short, meanwhile, puts things on a larger scale. The effects of the 2008 financial crisis are more widespread than the incidents featured in any of the other films, having altered the lives of millions around the world. The Big Short looks back at the decisions that went into the eventual crash of the housing market. As viewers watch the crisis unfold, the through line is more immediate than those in the other films mentioned, as the effects of actions taken on Wall Street years ago reverberate still today.

So what is the goal of “hindsight cinema”? The films above all present a time in history when humans let something awful happen to other humans, perhaps in the hopes of teaching audiences how not to make these mistakes again. Though the events depicted in these films are in the past and viewers can do nothing about them, as the popular saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But does this ever work?

Art has always sought to help humanity learn from its own history, but its success has varied. In the case of Trumbo, even in our time of social, religious, and political upheaval, the film’s subject matter seems too out of context for today’s audiences to connect it to any modern issue. Spotlight asks that we be disgusted at the negligence that allowed the Church to hide its abusive priests, but cover ups continue in all realms. We wonder how anyone could have let this happen, but surely there are events occurring at this very moment that someone someday will wonder the very same thing about. The intricacies of Truth imply that reporters now know better, but in today's 24-hour news cycle and Internet climate, there are journalists undoubtedly making similar choices today.

The Big Short, meanwhile, doesn't ask its audience to critique themselves in the same way that, say, Spotlight or Trumbo do, but it does allow them to pass judgement on its perpetrators. Ryan Gosling’s character even remarks to the camera, “I can feel you judging me.” Are we? Even in this realm, audiences are relatively ineffective. The average person cannot understand the details of the characters’ financial moves and decisions, let alone take action against them that could change the probability that the same thing can easily happen in the future. As the film’s end card states, the banks are basically in the same position as they were in before the crash.

So can any of these hindsight films ever actually make a difference? There have been some documentaries that have sparked change, such as Super Size Me and The Thin Blue Line, but fictional films have had less success. Perhaps the key is that the issue needs to be concurrent with the release of the film in order for anything to work — which is where the Will Smith drama Concussion comes in. The film, which presents the story of how Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered the frequency of brain damage in football players, is not "hindsight" as much as it is current. Football is still the most popular sport in America, and the film, as well as Omalu’s research, suggest that without serious action taken, players will continue to suffer as a result of CTE.

Like the other movies, Concussion is saying, "Something needs to be done" — but unlike them, its timeliness might just give it a chance to succeed. Filmmakers and audiences can’t go back in time and stop the Church abuses, the banks’ manipulation, or the blacklisting of alleged Communists, but perhaps Concussion can be the example of this year’s “hindsight cinema” that actually provides a result.

Images: Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics, Open Road Films